Today's speculation concerns the source of last year's defensive struggles on the gridiron, and how much they'll translate to this fall.
Speculation #2 -- On the defensive side in football, our issues last year were hardly with "Jimmies and Joes".
Happy St. Patrick's Day! Today we're going to talk about football, the sport where everyone's obsessed with our offense and how it supposedly cripples our team, while it's actually our strong suit and somehow keeps our team afloat despite struggles on the other side of the ball. (Oh, the media...) By the way, I should probably mention that this particular article will not be touching on the offense past this point. You can take your Vad Lees, read option potentials, and run/pass balances and put them back in the drawer for another day's discussion.
That's right, today we're talking defense. Last year our defense was clearly the weak part of our team, especially when it came to times when it really counted -- late-game collapses directly resulted in losses to Virginia Tech and Miami, while an overall terrible performance enabled Middle Tennessee to score a blowout win. There were four more losses last year (Clemson, BYU, uga, Florida State) that happened because of more than just the defense, but of those games only the first 3 quarters against Clemson and the second half against Florida State could really be considered effective defensive outings.
When we consider poor performances, there could be a few root causes. Is it an issue of chemistry? Absolutely not. (We'll discuss this more in depth later this week.) Is it an issue of "Jimmies and Joes", between talent of your personnel and how well they fit into the system? This writer says no, and I'll explain why in a second. That leaves only an issue of "X's and O's" as the main issue with our lackluster performances, which I think was the resounding issue. I'm clearly not alone, according to the actions of head coach Paul Johnson, who fired defensive coordinator Al Groh 6 games into the season.
Let's talk defensive personnel. Last year's starting lineup more or less passed the eyeball test -- there may not have been that one guy who couldn't get away from SportsCenter, but there also wasn't a starter that routinely caused fans to groan and put their face into their hands. Now, I think we'd all agree that, while our defense wasn't lacking talent, they also weren't a top-5 unit in terms of it -- but that's not my issue with it. We had 4 guys in the secondary (Isaiah Johnson, Rod Sweeting, Jemea Thomas, and Louis Young) who all of us would agree were starter-quality at any ACC school, and probably at a good portion of schools in any conference (SEC not withstanding). Then we had 4 linebackers (Jeremiah Attaochu, Jabari Hunt-Days, Quayshawn Nealy, Brandon Watts) in a pretty similar standing of impressive relative ability. If you had to pick a weak unit, it'd have to be the D-Line, but even then you had two guys (T.J. Barnes and Izaan Cross) who currently have realistic NFL hopes (in whatever small capacity those hopes may be), along with Emmanuel "Too Tall" Dieke and the breakout freshman stud Adam Gotsis. Find me a blaring, alarming weakness in that group of 12 individuals, and I'll direct you to the nearest optometrist.
Let's talk about trends. Through 6 games, our defense was more of a liability than an asset, and was unbelievably irritating to watch -- it was as if opposing offenses had a better chance of converting on 3rd and 12 than on 3rd and 2. Plainly stated, nothing was working, and nothing appeared to be getting any better -- thus, Al Groh was fired, and someone else (Charles Kelly) was put in charge of applying a new set of "X's and O's" to the same "Jimmies and Joes". Next thing you know, the defense starts looking more competent. Sure, BYU and uga were rough games, but we went from a defense who made you wonder if they knew how to tie their own shoes to a defense that showed promise and flashes of greatness. That defense ended up giving up 23 points to Florida State in the first half of the ACC Championship Game before going almost a full 4 quarters without giving up another point -- a streak ended by USC's touchdown just before halftime of the Sun Bowl.
You know, when a defense goes from struggling to stop a 10-year-old to shutting down two teams with top-10 talent for 6 straight quarters, and nothing changes personnel-wise, it's silly to suggest that there was ever an issue with talent. All this to say, the pieces are there for this to be a top-25 defense. The loss of T.J. Barnes and Rod Sweeting will hardly be catastrophic, and will be eased by the epic return of Fred Holton at SS and the emergence of Shawn Green and Adam Gotsis as interior linemen. In any case, as we approach this fall and questions are asked about the defense, be assured that any issues on that side of the ball are going to be for reasons other than the talent level -- we're all set in that respect.
Were our defensive issues last year partially attributable to the players on the field, or are you with me in being prepared to place pretty much all of the blame on the coaching?